While reading several new novels published this past spring, one is struck by the way that the British novelists who take up the issues of our times prefer to do so not directly but at an angle. There is Ian McEwan, who, in addressing the shock of 9/11 (or 11/9 as it is spoken of in Europe), chose Mrs. Dalloway as a model and Virginia Woolf’s way of including the horrors of World War II in a sunlit day of an English summer. Now we have Kazuo Ishiguro dealing with the present hotly debated issue of cloning by seeming to revert to an old tradition of British boarding school stories. McEwan’s pleasant, bourgeois world is drenched in golden light. Ishiguro’s more austere scene is cast in the pearly, opaque light with which we tend to drape the past; he hints at the shadows that lie around but chooses to keep them at a decorous distance.
The world Ishiguro creates is both similar to the one we know from our schooldays and yet not quite so. The children at Hailsham seem curiously restrained; not only do they not venture beyond its boundaries, they do not seem to want to do so. Even later in life, when one would think they had every reason to find the very idea of Hailsham repulsive, they still talk dreamily
about our guardians, about how we each had our own collection chests under our beds, the football, the rounders, the little path that took you all round the outside of the main house, round all its nooks and crannies, the duck pond, the food, the view from the Art Room over the fields on a foggy morning.
The narrator, Kathy H., for whom it seems to have been the complete world, can exclaim, as an adult, “how lucky we’d been—Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us,” because she had once been a part of it. Even the sight, while she drives through the country, of school sports pavilions, “little white prefab buildings with a row of windows,” sends her into raptures:
We loved our sports pavilion, maybe because it reminded us of those sweet little cottages people always had in picture books when we were young. I can remember us back in the Juniors, pleading with guardians to hold the next lesson in the pavilion instead of the usual room….
Then we are told about the particular traditions at Hailsham for which it was so beloved: the “Exchanges,” for instance.
Four times a year—spring, summer, autumn, winter—we had a kind of exhibition-cum-sale of all the things we’d been creating in the three months since the last Exchange. Paintings, drawings, pottery; all sorts of “sculptures” made from whatever was the craze of the day—bashed-up cans, maybe, or bottle tops stuck onto cardboard. For each thing you put in, you were paid in Exchange Tokens—the guardians decided how many your particular masterpiece merited—and then on the day of the Exchange you went along with your tokens and “bought” the stuff you liked. The rule was you could only buy work done by students in your own year, but that still gave us plenty to choose from, since most of us could get pretty prolific over a three-month period.
Hmmm, you think, schoolchildren “buying,” so enthusiastically, not candy, not toys, but artwork? We later learn there were “Sales” in which students obtained things from tradesmen. But Kathy explains that the Exchanges “were our only means, aside from the Sales…of building up a collection of personal possessions,” while Ruth says, “It’s all part of what made Hailsham so special…the way we were encouraged to value each other’s work.” And also to be creative—excelling at football, or rounders, was not of any importance, but painting, sculpture, writing poetry were. The boy Tommy who shows no aptitude at all for arts and crafts is the one picked upon and seen as backward: “He got left out of games, boys refused to sit next to him at dinner, or pretended not to hear if he said anything in his dorm after lights-out.” So much so that finally one guardian, kinder than the others—the adults here are not teachers but “guardians”—takes him aside to assure him that “if I didn’t want to be creative, if I really didn’t feel like it, that was perfectly all right. Nothing wrong with it, she said.”
Ishiguro is extremely good at recreating the special, oppressive atmosphere of school (and any other institution, for that matter)—the cliques that form, the covert rivalries, the obsessive concern with who sat next to whom, who was seen talking to whom, who is in favor at one moment and who is not. All of this is related in the flat, affectless voice of Kathy H.—polite, sensible, but also convincingly capable of childish jokes and cruelties: “Tommy, you got poo-poo on your back!” and making vomiting noises on seeing a couple holding hands. The tone tends to quell the questions that begin to emerge and trouble one like an indefinable sound or smell in a familiar scene. Why does Miss Lucy, while trying to reassure Tommy, at the same time “shake with rage”? And what is it she refers to when she speaks indignantly of the children not “being taught enough”? She cannot mean that they do not study enough. Tommy senses that “what she was talking about was, you know, about us. What’s going to happen to us one day. Donations and all that.” Actually, they have been told that they would be donating something of themselves but they simply had not gone beyond this and made connections with anything specific. The secret and sinister aspect of the “donations” was not addressed.
It is the reader who begins to wonder: Why is the artwork so important for the children to produce? Why is it that it is all these children possess? Ominously, there is no reference to, no connection made with, the outer world at all. Clearly the outer world is not to know of their existence. They do not even go out on an occasional shopping expedition; tradesmen arrive with boxes that are unloaded and from which they select their T-shirts and the tapes of music that they enjoy, among other things. These are the Sales that bring the children to the highest pitch of excitement, and give them so much satisfaction that they never ask for more, for example, to go into the world from which these desirable goods come.
Following Tommy’s talk with Miss Lucy, even Kathy H. begins to question: “What’s the link? Why did she bring up donations? What’s that got to do with you being creative?” Could the Gallery be the link—that rumored depository for which a mysterious visitor, known only as Madame, chooses the best of their artwork? Why does she collect their work? Kathy senses that “it’s all linked in, though I can’t figure out how.” Although the students know about the Gallery—as about “donations”—they instinctively shy away from mentioning it in the presence of the guardians. Another thing they have picked up on is that Madame, when she visits Hailsham about twice a year, takes care not to meet any of them. Ruth says, “She’s scared of us…. I used to think she was just snooty, but it’s something else, I’m sure of it now. Madame’s scared of us.”
To test Ruth’s theory, they arrange a confrontation with her and it is as they suspected:
As she came to a halt, I glanced quickly at her face…. And I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her…. She was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.
The few other people they come in touch with—the gardeners and the deliverymen—joke with them, laugh, even call them “sweetheart.” The guardians are variously strict and kind. There is Miss Emily, the head guardian, for instance, who, when reprimanding them for having grown a bit too rowdy at the Sales, repeats phrases like “unworthy of privilege” and “misuse of opportunity” that they fail to understand but
her general drift was clear enough: we were all very special, being Hailsham students, and so it was all the more disappointing when we behaved badly. Beyond that though, things became a fog.
Yet there is this unchallenged idea that they were different:
We knew a few things about ourselves—about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside—but hadn’t yet understood what any of it meant…. Because it doesn’t really matter how well your guardians try to prepare you: all the talks, videos, discussions, warnings, none of that can really bring it home. Not when you’re eight years old, and you’re all together in a place like Hailsham.
So there is no moment of revelation, no lightning bolt of realization: the children have grown up with this knowledge and, in their way, they are loyal to it, to Hailsham which represents it, just as an ordinary child is to family or home.
This is Ishiguro’s masterstroke, that he does not make Hailsham the place of horror it would be if he was to adhere to the rules of the genres of science fiction and horror movies: he makes it the most normal place he can, almost an exact replica of our own world. This makes it credible that the children are so disquietingly, so passively accepting of it, of all they have been told and taught. Other than Tommy’s outbursts on the football field and temper tantrums, there is no sign of any rebellion, and even these are put down to merely his uncontrolled nature as they would be in any school or playground.
In fact, it is the outer world that seems to them a place to avoid: it is the unknown and they are not keen to step over the border. The woods at the top of the hill, for instance, seem to symbolize for them all that is dark and dangerous. They never go up to explore them or play in them as other children might; instead, the woods cast a shadow over the whole of Hailsham; the children have nightmares about them, they frighten each other with them and make up stories about them—how a boy who had run away had been found in these woods, tied to a tree and with his feet cut off; how a girl who had climbed over the fence to explore them tried to get back but was not allowed to and so “her ghost was always wandering about the woods, gazing over Hailsham, pining to be let back in.”
A way of life and thinking has been imposed on them and they seem—mostly—at peace with it. They take the warnings given them seriously—but not too seriously, for example, about smoking:
I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham the guardians were really strict about smoking. I’m sure they’d have preferred it if we never found out smoking even existed; but since this wasn’t possible, they made sure to give us some sort of lecture each time any reference to cigarettes came along.
It is rumored that Sherlock Holmes has been left out of the library because of his pipe smoking. Yet when one student dares ask a guardian if she has ever smoked, the others all glare at her, “furious she’d asked such a rude question.” The guardian tells them, “You’re…special. So keeping yourselves well, keeping yourselves very healthy inside, that’s much more important for each of you than it is for me,” and no one thinks to ask, “Why? Why is it so much worse for us?” Trying to analyze their reticence, Kathy H. explains, “If we were keen to avoid certain topics, it was probably more because it embarrassed us.”
Oddly enough, when it comes to sex, no such reticence is considered necessary. When they are thirteen years old and naturally “pretty worried and excited about sex,” the guardians give them sex lectures and bring in skeletons from the biology class to give them graphic demonstrations. The warning they are given regarding their sexual behavior is only that when they meet people in the outside world, they should remember they were “different from us students”: they could have babies from sex.
That was why it was so important to them, this question of who did it with whom. And even though, as we knew, it was completely impossible for any of us to have babies, out there, we had to behave like them. We had to respect the rules and treat sex as something pretty special.
Kathy H. and the other students notice how talk of sex is always linked to talk of donations, and since they are conditioned to be quite casual about sex, they find a way of being casual about donations too, even joking about them as when they fool the gullible Tommy into thinking that donations were a simple matter of “unzipping” a liver or a kidney and handing it over; they go on to pretend they are unzipping their parts and dropping them on someone’s plate at dinner. “It was just done to get a laugh, to put someone off their dinner—and, I suppose, as some way of acknowledging what was in front of us.”
One might say that these are children who have no shadows—but they don’t possess even that weirdness. As Tommy is capable of anger, Kathy H. finds that she is capable of emotions that she cannot quite analyze. She listens to her favorite tape and the song “Never Let Me Go.” The title, of course, indicates that it is only one more pop song of the sentimental kind that goes with adolescence, but when she hears the words “Baby, baby, never let me go…” it is no romantic notion that comes to her; instead she imagines that she is a woman who cannot have a child, then by some miracle does and, holding a pillow to stand in for it, dances while crooning those words. She is then startled to find that Madame, out in the corridor, has observed her and that she is sobbing.
Very much later in her life, when she tracks down and confronts Madame and demands answers to the mysteries of their lives at Hailsham, Madame tells her she had not known, of course, that she thought of the pillow as a baby but had imagined something altogether different:
I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go…. I saw you and it broke my heart. And I’ve never forgotten.
So, in such unguarded moments, emotion is let in after all, uninvited, into this orderly world—and with emotions, dreams. An unmistakably desultory air sets in once the students leave Hailsham for the next step that has been mapped out for them: the Cottages. Here there are no lessons, and no guardians. Instead, in an untidy straggle of farm buildings, they are left to their own devices, nominally watched over by an old codger, Keffers, who clearly wants to have nothing to do with them. Inevitably, they consider the future, dream of what it might hold (other than “donations” and “completion”).
The astute, sharp-witted Ruth entertains the idea of working in an office: she is enchanted by a picture she has seen of what seems a perfectly ordinary office. On a trip into a nearby town, she actually sees the prototype of such a place and in it a woman, an employee, she picks as her “possible,” the word they use for the donor of an embryo. Might she, Ruth, be a clone of this envied, enviable creature? Once she tracks her down, this notion proves clearly absurd—the woman is well dressed and comfortably off, quite unlike herself, and her disappointment plants a seed of discontent, even sorrow. She gives way to an unaccustomed outbreak of bitterness:
They don’t ever, ever, use people like that woman. Think about it. Why would she want to?… We’re not modelled from that sort…. We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from…. If you want to look for possibles, if you want to do it properly, then you look in the gutter. You look in rubbish bins. Look down the toilet, that’s where you’ll find where we all come from.
The idyllic world of Hailsham has been revealed as a sham. Disillusion sets in. Suddenly, a “deferral” becomes a desperate hope: there is a rumor that if one wished it, if, for instance, one were in love, seriously so, then a “deferral” of the donations might be entertained. (By whom? It is not said. No organization has revealed itself to which such an appeal could be made: it has remained invisible. There is no imposed schedule, no police van to arrive in the night and seize the donors and take them away. The most invincible tyrant is the one that is invisible.) Ruth herself accepts the fact that the time has come for her to make her donations: “After all, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?” she says—and one is reminded of that point in a people’s history when it gives up fighting and simply gives way to its fate, extinction being the inevitable ending to its history. One is reminded too, of course, of the supposed resignation with which Jews filed into the death camps.
Before her death, Ruth urges Kathy H. and Tommy to try their luck and appeal for a future together. Kathy H. becomes Tommy’s “carer” and in his room in the recovery center at Kingsfield, where “the sun came in through the frosted glass so that even in early summer, it felt like autumn light” and where they while away time “chatting, having sex, reading aloud and drawing,” waiting for notice to arrive of Tommy’s fourth donation, which will be the final one, they begin to consider the possibility of a “deferral.” Tommy wonders if the artwork they had been encouraged to do at Hailsham, “things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff…revealed what you were like inside…revealed your soul,” and if it could be used for such an appeal. Pathetically, he sets about making the art, the drawings he had failed to make at Hailsham. Even Kathy can see they are not very good. Besides, Hailsham has closed down, it no longer exists. But she conceives of a plan that might save them.
As in his previous book, When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro ends his novel by taking his characters on a final expedition—of discovery of the past, the most daunting and necessary, he seems to say, that one can make. Kathy and Tommy, armed with his book of drawings, track down Madame, in one of a row of terraced houses in a seaside town, where they find her and, unexpectedly, Miss Emily as well, now incapacitated and in a wheelchair, we are not told why or how. In the strangely theatrical interior, darkened with screens and curtains as though it were a stage, the lovers present their bid for a “deferral” so that they might have a few years before their final, conclusive donation. Tommy presents his artwork as a reason why such a “deferral” should be considered. Somewhat like the Wizard of Oz, Madame reveals to them that the rumor of a “deferral” has no truth in it, there is no such possibility. But if the art had no such worth, why had they been trained and encouraged to produce it? Why had it been acquired and collected?
“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”…
“Why did you have to prove a thing like that…? Did someone think we didn’t have souls?”
It turns out that Hailsham had been so special because it had actually entertained the possibility of souls and tried to establish it by way of the children’s art. (In the best tradition of the detective novel, Ishiguro exposes the most suspicious and apparently sinister character as having been harmless.) But that the children—clones raised for the purpose of organ donations—should have souls, “that frightened people. They recoiled from that.” Of course the point that Ishiguro is making is that in order to have a class that one is able to exploit without disturbing the conscience, it must first be deprived of humanity, of “soul.” This was how slavery was made possible, as well as other catastrophes of history. Like slaves, Kathy and Tommy find there is no escape and there is nothing for them but steady decline, from donation to donation till the last, and then
even if you’ve technically completed, you’re still conscious in some sort of way; how then you find there are more donations, plenty of them, on the other side of that line; how there are no more recovery centres, no carers, no friends; how there’s nothing to do except watch your remaining donations until they switch you off. It’s horror movie stuff, and most of the time people don’t want to think about it.
There are risks in writing such a novel, and Ishiguro is not afraid to take them. One risk is in the use of Kathy H. as the narrator and marrying her uninflected tone to the dark and frightening subject. Could the voice of the emotionally uncontrolled Tommy or of the perfectly controlled but more self-aware Madame have been a stronger medium?
Another is that developments in science can move faster than a novelist’s pen at times: the issue of cloning has in some ways been overtaken by that of stem cell research and the morality of how such stem cells are obtained, particularly from embryos. The latest discoveries in the field, made in Korea just the other day, claim to bypass the embryo altogether, instead using clusters of cells known as “nuclear transfer constructs” before they reach the embryo stage, and the emphasis of research has also shifted to healing and repairing damaged or failed organs instead of replacing them. The vision Ishiguro creates of the factory farming of clones does indeed belong to the world of horror movies—and the nightmares of conservatives in government and church—but makes no mention of a far greater and more real horror, which is the trafficking in organs of donors in the desperately poor countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, compelled by their poverty to provide organs for which the first world with its obscene wealth can pay.
Would a book that presented not a hypothetical concept but a reality be too much to tackle, for both writer and reader? Would such a truth be too overwhelming for such partners in fantasy to confront? Is it sufficient for fiction to create a pale, opaque screen to place between the reader and reality?
It is as if Ishiguro is making us view the world from that “row of windows unnaturally high up” in the sports pavilion, or from Tommy’s room at the recovery center where
you could only look out by standing on a chair and holding open the pane, and then you only got a view down onto the dense shrubbery.
If it was opened wider, a far grimmer world would have been exposed behind that dense shrubbery—too grim to bear viewing.
September 22, 2005